Part of USS Endeavour: A Handful of Dust and Bravo Fleet: The Stormbreaker Campaign

A Handful of Dust – 16

Sanditor Island, Whixby
January 2400
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Endeavour alone should thus be able to prepare the Spirelight Isles to receive approximately fifty thousand refugees within the expected time-frame.’ Thawn tapped the holo-projection of the timeline emanating from the wall’s display, sweeping it further along. ‘Secondary support operations will be able to quadruple that in the first week. Initial assessments suggest a maximum capacity of half a million refugees on the Spirelight Isles alone.’

Then she hesitated, looking across the room. ‘That’s wrong, isn’t it?’

Hale was the only other person in the suite, sipping coffee on the comfortable couch she probably didn’t know doubled as Rhade’s bed. ‘It’s not wrong,’ she said gently. ‘But we should probably not imply the expansion of refugee shelters beyond the Spirelight Isles at this juncture.’

‘But you want that?’

‘I want to save as many lives as possible.’

Thawn pursed her lips. ‘Ma’am, that’s a diplomat’s answer and we’re on the same team.’

‘I don’t want to put you in a difficult position with your family, Lieutenant.’

‘Lying to me puts me in a difficult position with you and with Starfleet, though.’

‘Fair enough.’ Hale sighed. ‘It’s my job to not just understand where the other side is coming from, but respect it – otherwise, how can I possibly convince them to reach a compromise? A shelter on Spirelight is a good idea, but I’d expect the Board to be anxious this is a back-door effort to achieve what they’re already afraid of: destroying the resorts in favour of refugees.’

‘Then be clear what you need from me,’ said Thawn quietly, ‘and be clear that I’m a Starfleet officer with insights into Whixby, not a member of the Twelfth House on your team.’

Hale stood up and straightened her blouse. ‘You’re both, Lieutenant. I wouldn’t ask you to pretend otherwise, even to yourself.’

‘My loyalty isn’t -’

‘Being questioned. But I recognise you’re walking a tightrope. So I will ask you to present the plain facts of the proposal, and will advocate for it. Let your support, as a member of the Twelfth House, be implicit.’

Thawn gave a slow nod. ‘Do you need anything from Lieutenant Rhade?’

‘I’d expect, in doing the rounds, he’s made his position perfectly clear,’ came Hale’s diplomatic response. ‘Let’s keep him as the voice of Starfleet on the streets that people have to contend with in their day-to-day, instead of only encountering our perspective in boardrooms.’

‘Is that helpful?’

‘Perhaps. It certainly makes you look moderate in comparison, which I will take.’ Hale paused, rubbing her temples. ‘When can we speak to the Board?’

‘Tomorrow, perhaps. Slower than I would like. But forgive me, First Secretary – you look tired.’

‘I have been trying to help Doctor Sadek liaise with the local authorities and Whixby’s Director of Operations in the efforts on the Azure Chain,’ Hale admitted. ‘It’s possible I’ve been burning the candle at both ends, but Captain Rourke asked me to help the relief team.’

‘If I may, that’s a lot for him to put on you.’

Hale hesitated. ‘I misspoke. I offered to help the relief team. This mission has everyone stretched rather thin.’

And here I am, thought Thawn guiltily, taking a late night stroll down the market plaza yesterday. She had been clearing her head from her number crunching, taken PADDs to a dock and sat with the stars shining above and the seas lapping at the pier and had been altogether more productive after crawling for too long in her own head in her own hotel room. It still felt like an indulgence. ‘I’ll speak with Lieutenant Adupon, see if -’

‘No,’ Hale said firmly. ‘Finish the Spirelight proposal. Our facts need to be iron-tight and I want your focus here.’ But she took a step forward and squeezed Thawn’s arm. ‘I really do appreciate and value your efforts, Lieutenant.’

It was a little sad, Thawn knew, how much this validation cheered her up. Hale wasn’t in her chain of command, but she was important, respected, and had the ear of the captain. She was spared having to give this a relaxed response with the chirruping of her PADD, and she looked down at the new message with a frown.

‘Oh,’ said Thawn emptily. ‘Adamant and I have been invited to lunch with the Lillarties.’

Hale looked optimistic, but not without caution. ‘That’s a very good sign. You should be as pleasant and supportive of them as possible.’

Those aren’t really words anyone’s ever associated with me.

Cosbar and Evertine Lillarties chose a bistro near the waterfront, the four of them seated outside with a fine view of the sailboats coming in for tourists’ lunches. Exhausted by her work and concerns, Thawn joined them only to let Rhade harness most of the conversation; for all his stern sense of duty, his manners were impeccable. That left him perfectly situated to tease conversation out of Evertine, who was more than happy to do the lion’s share of talking about Whixby, Sanditor, and the festival she still plainly expected to go ahead.

‘…of course, we’re going to have to rearrange some of the programme,’ Cosbar interjected into her enthusiasm with a sigh. ‘We’ll hardly get all the artists we were promised.’

Rhade cleared his throat. ‘No doubt many of the figures who’ve already arrived are exciting? Especially under such exceptional circumstances. Following through on the festival at all is an… achievement.’ Thawn, pouring herself more water, tried to not glare at his hesitant choice of words.

Evertine Lillarties looked suspicious, but Cosbar bustled straight through. ‘Of course,’ he blustered again, ‘but the truly headline events were too busy to arrive so early in advance! This blasted storm.’ He took a large bite of sandwich and pressed on rather hurriedly. ‘Obviously this is an insignificant problem compared to some.’

‘But we can only deal with the situation in front of us,’ Evertine said in a genteel, more diplomatic tone. ‘There’s no gain in borrowing trouble.’

‘Sharing trouble,’ rumbled Rhade, ‘can ease burdens.’

Thawn leaned forward and looked a little desperately at Evertine. ‘Madam Lillarties,’ she said, trying to not flap. ‘I hear the Seashine puts on the ball of the season?’

‘Oh, yes,’ said Evertine, picking up the thread of diversion. ‘If you’re still here in a week, you’d be most welcome.’

But Cosbar was regarding Rhade with a slightly frost air. ‘Sharing trouble’s all very well and good,’ he said, putting his glass down. ‘That’s different to dumping it on people. We have to look to our own problems first.’

Rhade tilted his chin up. ‘You have a paradise here on Sanditor. A privilege like that comes with obligations, surely?’

‘To protect it.’ Cosbar shook his head. ‘I have nothing against the people of the Paulson Nebula, nothing at all. But why should we bear the brunt of the cost of the storm, especially when it’s already taken so much from us? The Federation made the same arguments fifteen years ago, when no price was too high for the Romulan evacuation but Colonial Affairs couldn’t even give the likes of us the time of day…’

The moment he mentioned the Romulan evacuation, Thawn closed her eyes. It was as if she were directly in the path of a shuttle crash and could do nothing but accept what came next.

Indeed, Rhade leaned forward. ‘Whixby was still a thriving community fifteen years ago; the needs of the Romulan people were greater.’

Don’t rise to it, Thawn blazed into his mind, but she caught nothing more than a flicker of his gaze before it locked back on Cosbar.

‘And how did they repay us?’ Cosbar countered. ‘They attacked us! I don’t see how the revelations of Mars mean anything but that they remain a bunch of deceitful rats trying to take what was ours and slither behind our borders -’

Rhade’s chair rattled on the sun-baked paving slabs as he shot to his feet. ‘Sir, I do not mean to be ungrateful for the hospitality you’ve shown Lieutenant Thawn and I, but I cannot sit and listen to such words.’

Evertine froze as Thawn did, but Cosbar leaned back on his chair, gazing up at the broad-shouldered officer. ‘You’re right,’ he said. ‘We have offered you hospitality. You weren’t invited here to lecture us.’

‘Then I take it I was invited so you could have a veneer of respectability, to appear as if Starfleet endorses your position,’ said Rhade briskly. ‘Allow me to disabuse you, or anyone, of that notion. Lieutenant Thawn and I can depart at -’

‘Let’s not be hasty!’ said Evertine Lillarties in a high-pitched voice, just as Thawn looked up and hissed, ‘Adamant!’

Silence fell on the table, and while Thawn could not pick up the particulars, she felt the wave of urgent communication from Evertine to Cosbar that had him, at least, falling silent. Rhade remained stock-still, and after a heartbeat, Evertine drew a slow breath.

‘Nobody,’ she said at last, ‘needs to go anywhere. You are guests, and that hospitality does not come with any price.’ An urgent look was flung at Cosbar at that; his moustache bristled, but he stayed silent. ‘I think that the rather dire straits of the region has got everyone on edge.’

‘I think so, too,’ said Thawn, anxiously jumping for the lifeline as Rhade managed to keep his mouth shut for an extra few moments. ‘The sun is, uh, very hot today, as well -’

‘Quite,’ said Rhade in a low, clipped voice, but she could feel the suggestion of betrayal emanating from him at her mollification. He had, she realised, expected him to side with her. ‘I think it would be best if I returned to my duties.’

Cosbar gave a low grunt. ‘Quite.’

Thawn bit her lip as Rhade stormed off. This was only a temporary reprieve, but she had no idea what would come of their next conversation. Then Evertine cleared her throat in a genteel manner, and said, ‘Are you familiar with the works of Torkaxalan, Mistress Thawn?’

They had definitely already talked about the biggest name in contemporary Betazoid art, but Thawn knew a pivot when she saw it. Cosbar settled into the sulk of a man whose preeminence had been dismissed by both challengers and his own wife, and so she was able to see out the rest of the lunch talking about absolutely nothing with a rather strained Evertine Lillarties.

At the least, it averted complete disaster.

Life was ebbing from the bars and eateries of Sanditor by the time she was finished, tourists heading for the afternoon’s activities, and so Thawn let herself be tugged by the crowds once she’d given the Lillarties her polite farewells. They had eaten in the shade while the sun was at its zenith, the warmth slightly less stifling now, and still she found the faint breeze coming in off the docks refreshing, rejuvenating.

She was, she suspected, going to need it. With a sigh, Thawn sank onto a bench near one of the long piers, small pleasure yachts moored along it, and pressed her hands to her forehead. She’d brought Rhade along with the hope he could present Starfleet’s views in a manner palatable to Betazoids, but there was a rift in culture between him and the people of Whixby she hadn’t anticipated. Or perhaps the rift applied to her, too, but she had to manage her family, deal with the political fallout, smooth the feathers he could ruffle and walk away from.

Laughter broke her brooding solitude; laughter she recognised. With a suspicious air, Thawn dragged down her hands to spot a smattering of figures heading down the dock. Young, bright-eyed, energetic, she recognised a few of them as part of the noble families visiting Whixby or represented on its board, but they were not what had drawn her attention. Because at the head of them, regaling the group with some tale that had them in raucous amusement as he led them to one of the boats, was Nate Beckett.

‘Are you kidding me?’ Thawn muttered, getting to her feet. The sound of her heels on the pier rang out like gunshots as she stalked towards them, the half-dozen getting the boat ready to be underway, but she kept her eyes on her target before she drew close and raised her voice. ‘Beckett!’

He was halfway through doing something with a rope on the sailing boat, but shot upright at her voice before she saw him paste on a smile. ‘Mistress Thawn.’ He bounced from the deck to the pier, taking in both her and his companions with a sweep of the hand. ‘Should I begin introductions? My friends, this is Lieutenant Rosara Thawn of the Twelfth House, but don’t be deceived; she’s not just got the ear of the Nyders, she’s also a professional rock star – ow –

Stalking forward, she’d grabbed him by the elbow to drag him back up the pier. Even though she was in heels and a sundress that didn’t leave her particularly mobile and he was in casual khaki shorts and boat shoes, he still stumbled at the speed and intensity of her extraction. ‘What are you doing?’ he hissed.

‘Me? What are you doing?’ Out of earshot, she rounded on him, eyes blazing.

Beckett blinked. ‘Getting on a boat. You see, they’re these grand inventions that float on -’

Beckett!’

‘Snapping my name doesn’t make you suddenly make more sense! What does it look like I’m doing, I’m mingling!’

‘It looks like we’ve come here to try to build a damned refugee shelter and instead you’ve been partying and cavorting with the locals! We didn’t bring you here for a bloody holiday!’

He grimaced, tugging on his rumpled blue polo shirt to straighten it. ‘Let’s be real, you didn’t bring me here at all.’

‘No! Because I wouldn’t have invited you on an important mission for the same reason you get any job: being an admiral’s son!’

There had been a lightness to his indignation so far, treating her anger as a wave to ride. But now Beckett’s expression slammed shut, and she didn’t need to be a telepath to feel the combination of fury and control wash over him. ‘Okay, what curled up in your arse and died, Thawn?’

‘I am trying to get this job done -’

‘No, you’re pissed off about something and, as per usual, taking it out on me. I don’t know when it became open season on Nate Beckett, but I’m not here for you to lash out at because you don’t dare lash out at, I don’t know, Hale, or Rhade, or your own family.’ He folded his arms across his chest, back straightening.

Her lip curled. ‘Alright, then, explain to me the benefit of going sailing for an afternoon?’

‘Here’s a novel concept: I don’t answer to you,’ he spat. ‘Hale’s running this mission. You’re nothing but her link to the Nyders. I don’t have to justify a damn thing.’

Ensign –

‘Oh, no, you don’t come and chew me out just because you’re in a mood and then act like this is a professional situation.’ Now his expression shifted from indignation for a flash of hurt. ‘I thought I’d earned just a little of the benefit of the doubt from you. After Ephrath, after the Koderex –

‘This has nothing to do with either of those.’

‘You’re right. On those we were working together. But I don’t see any damn reason for us to exchange notes here. After all.’ He tilted his chin up. ‘I’m just swanning around, having a grand old partying time while people die. Isn’t that the case? Doesn’t that make checking up on me a complete waste of your day?’

She was silent, her frustration and anger with Rhade still fizzing through her veins, the nagging sense of guilt tugging at her that maybe, just maybe, he had a point about her taking this out on him.

He smirked without humour at her response. ‘Yeah. So maybe you go back to work, or you go deal with whatever it is you’re mad at Rhade for – it is him, right, either he’s done something and you expressing yourself would require you to acknowledge one single feeling about him, or you’re just freezing up at having to play happy couple for the crowd?’ Beckett shrugged at her hesitation. ‘Thought so. I’ve got a boat to catch. Lieutenant.’

If she’d had a leg to stand on, she could have written him up for his tone of voice, for the disrespect in the jaunty salute he slung her as he stepped back. Then the anger slid off him – or, her senses raged, deeper into him – and he turned like he didn’t have a care in the world, sauntering back towards the boat he’d left behind.

‘Hey, guys, did anyone pack the drinks…’

Turning away from him took a wrenching effort, like she was ripping through her own anger, guilt, and frustration. But she couldn’t stay there, glaring at his back or brooding on her own bad choices, or on the conversations she’d determinedly avoided having in lieu of this fight. The sun was still high in the sky, the day had many hours of it left yet, and she still had a plethora of preparations to make if her compromise with Hale was going to work.

Now was not the time to think about feelings. Not about the Lillarties. Not about Adamant Rhade.

And not about Nate Beckett.